Fishing for decentralisation in Yemen

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nickson-andrewAndrew Nickson is Honorary Reader in Public Management and Latin American Studies in IDD and has extensive worldwide experience of teaching, research and consultancy on public administration reform, decentralisation, and the reform of basic service delivery and regulation of privatised public utilities. He is currently in Yemen, contributing to UNICEF’s strategic thinking in the direction of greater engagement with district councils and local level planning.

Yemen, the ancient Kingdom of Sheba, is facing a critical juncture in its tumultuous recent history. Formerly divided into South Yemen and North Yemen, unification took place in 1990, followed by two decades of growing authoritarian rule by military-backed regimes. Student uprisings in the Arab Spring forced President Saleh to leave office in November 2012, but not to leave the country. Since March this year a 565-delegate National Dialogue Conference (NDC) has been in session, striving to agree on the future shape of the country against a backdrop of terrorist strikes, drone attacks, kidnappings and assassinations. The NDC initiative is strongly supported by the international community, including the presence of a Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General. A separatist movement (Hiraak) in the south is pressing for a federal system with only two states. This would be followed by a referendum, which they hope would then lead to secession and a return to separate statehood for South Yemen (and, by default, North Yemen). They argue that the international community has already accepted the precedent in the case of Sudan, where greater autonomy for the south was followed by a referendum in favour of secession and eventual statehood for South Sudan, which has now become the newest member of the United Nations. But other parties are pressing for an alternative federal arrangement comprising five states, each with a high degree of autonomy, but without the risks to national unity posed by the two-state model.

Old Sana'a street crowd - photo credit Stefan Geens Old Sana’a street crowd – Photo credit Stefan Geens

Yemen (pop. 25m) is currently a unitary state with 21 regional governorates and 333 district councils, as well as over 130,000 communities, most of which are in remote desert areas. Yet in its discussions so far, none of the eight working groups of the NDC have given any attention to the extremely weak presence of the state at the district level, which is limited mainly to field offices of some central government line ministries. District council elections were last held in 2004 and the mandate of the handpicked councillors was extended for a further seven years when their three year mandate expired. In the absence of basic electoral accountability, corruption and mismanagement has flourished. Citizen participation in local service delivery is now virtually non-existent in many parts of the country, especially where tribal sheikhs have monopolised councillor posts.  Meanwhile Yemen has one of the worst indicators of human development in the world. The health and education sectors receive only 4% and 17% respectively of public expenditure, the majority of which is swallowed up by the security services (armed forces and police). UNICEF figures for 2012 show that an alarming 50% of under-fives are stunted, 15% suffer from severe malnutrition, 50% of households in rural areas do not have access to safe water, only 17% of births of children under five were registered, and the maternal mortality rate, at 200 per 100,000 live births, was one of the highest in the world.

Unlike the 1994 national dialogue in Bolivia, where independent civil society organisations (CSOs) played a major role in its deliberations, the NDC is dominated by political parties and vested interests. Whatever is the final outcome of its bargaining on the future shape of Yemen, it would be naïve to think that this reconfiguration will somehow be a panacea for meeting the urgent development needs of the people. In fact, the NDC urgently needs to incorporate the issues of citizen participation and the role of district councils in its deliberations. Why so? Because in country after country where, in the name of ‘decentralisation’, governmental reforms have preferentially strengthened an intermediate (state or provincial) tier of government, the latter has almost always sucked powers not only downwards from central government but also upwards from local government. This “decentralisation of centralisation”, with its attendant growth of an often venal and self-serving bureaucracy, has invariably produced negative consequences for basic service delivery and citizen empowerment at the local level.

Old Town SanaaOld Town Sanaa – Photo credit: Richard Messenger

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